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My Take: Christianity and Ayn Rand's philosophy are 2 distinct religions
Ayn Rand's book "The Fountainhead" and the Bible.
August 15th, 2012
11:29 AM ET

My Take: Christianity and Ayn Rand's philosophy are 2 distinct religions

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Now that one of the Republican Party’s least ideological men (Mitt Romney) has christened one of the GOP’s most ideological men (Paul Ryan) as his running mate, Ayn Rand is back in the news.

Ryan, who used to give away Rand’s novel "Atlas Shrugged" for Christmas, once described this Russian-born preacher of heroic individualism as "the reason I got into public service.” “There is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism," he told the pro-Rand Atlas Society in 2005, "than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works."

Ryan’s religious conservatism obviously distinguishes him from Rand, an atheist who despised efforts by Ronald Reagan and others to marry church and state. And recently Ryan has tried to distance himself from her.

In an April interview with the National Review, he rooted his controversial budget plan, not in Rand’s laissez-faire philosophizing, but in Catholic values. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he said. “Give me Thomas Aquinas.”

Which makes me wonder just how these two influences on Ryan stack up against one another. Is it possible to love Aquinas and Rand at the same time? About as possible as loving God and mammon since Christianity and Randism are, in my view, two competing religions.

I know that Rand was an atheist, so it may seem like a stretch to call Randism a religion. But there are plenty of religions (Buddhism, for example) that have rejected God. And like Christianity, Randism has its founder, its scriptures and its miracles (since in the Gospel of Ayn Rand there isn't anything laissez-faire capitalism and its secular saints cannot do).

Randism also has its committed devotees, including former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and conservative talk-show hosts Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, not to mention the myriad commenters (see below) who will no doubt object to my efforts to brand her atheism a religion.

Here are five big differences I see between the  theologies of Christianity and Randism:

1. Jesus preached the virtue of selflessness; Rand wrote a book called "The Virtue of Selfishness" (1964). Altruism is evil, she argued, and egoism the only true ethics.

2. The Apostle Paul called the love of money the root of all evil. Rand wore a dollar sign brooch and saw to it that a florid dollar sign stood guard by her casket at her funeral. She also put a love letter to the almighty dollar on the lips of one of her "Atlas Shrugged" heroes, copper magnate Francisco d’Anconia (a speech Ryan has said he returns to repeatedly when pondering monetary policy). There d’Anconia calls money “the root of all good."

3. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke. And he says in the Gospel of Matthew that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” In the Gospel according to Ayn Rand, however, it is the “traders” (“job creators” in modern parlance) who like Atlas carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, while the poor are denounced as “moochers” and “looters."

4. The hope of the Christian gospel is the kingdom of God, but Rand's objectivist philosophy opposes "collectivism" at every turn. “Man - every man - is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake,” the inventor John Galt proclaims in "Atlas Shrugged," “and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”

5. The ultimate concern of Christianity is God. The ultimate concern of Randism is the unfettered freedom of the individual. While the Christian Trinity comprise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Rand’s Trinity is I, me, mine.

For years, Ryan and other conservative Republicans have been trying to have their Jesus Christ and their Ayn Rand,  too. But the two clash at least as much as an Obama/Ryan ticket.

Conservative icon William F. Buckley rightly recognized this fundamental incompatibility, running a blistering review of "Atlas Shrugged"in his National Review and denouncing that novel himself in a Charlie Rose interview as "a thousand pages of ideological fabulism.”

Evangelical leader Chuck Colson was equally critical, referring to Rand’s “idolatry of self and selfishness” as “the antithesis of Christianity.”

To his credit, Ryan seems to be acknowledging the gap between Randism and Christianity by attempting in recent months to distance himself from an intellectual mentor and emphasizing instead the Catholic roots of his budget plan.

But as Jesus once said, “By your fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16), and I for one still see much more Rand than Jesus in Ryan’s Robin Hood budget.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this piece said that Jesus called the love of money the root of all evil. The statement should have been attributed to the Apostle Paul.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 2012 Election • Atheism • Christianity • Economy • Paul Ryan • Politics • United States

soundoff (1,069 Responses)
  1. BReal

    THANK YOU!!! The two are NOT compatible - no matter how one tries to justify it! Can't preach the "Kingdom of God" and "Christianity" only with social issues - fiscal issues and the matters of the heart are JUST as important!!

    August 15, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  2. wally

    Christians love their religion, until it interferes with their money.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Jim in PA

      Ironically, the topic of the day is about a prominent aetheist who valued greed above all else. This isn't a debate about religion vs. aetheism. It's about greed vs. humanism.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • PerceivedReality

      I love Jesus, but hate money. Money is the tool of universal slavitude.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  3. Dyslexic doG

    the upcoming election will prove two points.
    (a) that christians are believers according to convenience, and
    (b) that republican christians are republicans first and christians second

    Romney is a mormon which is a religion that, as well as co-optingsome parts and characters from the bible word for word, also contradicts and makes a mockery of so many key christian religious beliefs that it should be a bigger issue to christians than gay marriage and abortion. But ... the same way as christians always pick and choose which parts of the bible to loudly proclaim and which parts of the bible to pretend don't exist ... they will ignore all these issues and vote for Romney anyway.

    Paul Ryan follows the philosophy of Ayn Rand (an athiest), whos teachings are against what Jesus taught.

    What do you think God/Jesus will think of you if you give your vote to a man who truly believes that he will one day be a God? Or a man who truly believes that Joseph Smith, a 19th century reknowned con-man, is an equal of Jesus? Or vote for a VP who follows the teachings of an athiest who promotes behaviour contrary to Jesus' teachings?

    I know exactly what's going to happen. Christians will pretend they never read this post or find some obscure bible quote that will justify supporting Romney's cult and Ryan's anti-Jesus philosophy. What a joke!!!

    August 15, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • PerceivedReality

      This Christian will vote for Romney/Ryan because that is what is best for America. The government was never meant to be the people's nanny.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Jesus follower

      Dyslexic.... Christians will vote for Romney because Obama is running this country into the dirt and needs to be stopped. We can't pay for his grand social programs. We are tired of being a third world nation. He had a nice pitch for hope and change, but the reality didn't live up. We may never recover from his social engineering and elitist fundamentalism.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • gar

      I remember Christians also announcing that they were voting for George W. Bush because they were voting for Jesus.

      Pres. Obama has done an excellent job as President in the face of full throated hatred from the reactionary right. The posters on here denoucing Pres. Obama are clueless.

      August 15, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  4. government cheese

    CNN better do stories on every book Ryan read. LOL

    August 15, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      no ... just the ones he said had been the biggest influence on his life.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Tony N.

      There might not be many stories to write. Ryan has a BA from Miami of OHIO. That is the extent of his post secondary education. No offense to Miami(OH), but it is not exactly a first tier university. Yet the Republicans try to pass him off as some kind of deep economic scholar. He has been a full time bureaucrat since the age of 28. Remember, if you ask a candidate what books or newspapers they have read, it is: "gotcha journalism".

      August 15, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  5. Second City

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsspXHADa4c&w=640&h=360]

    Don't take it too seriously, folks. It is just satire.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • fofojan

      Very nice.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  6. observer1776

    Matthew 6:24
    [ You Cannot Serve God and Riches ] “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

    There is simple logic in that statement, ethics, compassion and honesty are on the God side of the equation. Rand-ism, Utilitarianism, and uncontrolled self (greed) are on the other side.
    The Rand-ism side will always create destruction while creating wealth.
    A Rand-ism society, which ignores human flaws, while attempting to achieve godliness, will always self destruct.
    There are many historical facts to support this.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Conscience

      Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!!!!!! This is what the Republican Party is ALL about: they are Randians– not Christians!!! Ayn Rand's "Virtue of Selfishness" is the ethos by which Dick Cheney, Paul Ryan and the entire Republican establishment live by. Randianism (laissez-faire Capitalism) is the polar opposite of Chrisitianity, yet this corporate-run mainstream media allows the Republicans to get away with calling themselves Christian–appalling and scary.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  7. MakalethB

    Be NOT Deceived! I am Makaleth and the BESSUM of the CORN and of the GRAIN! I have walked seventeen miles on the road of Belial under the WHEAT sun and gathered his crop that is the TEMPTED and the FATED! There I met Muhammad Al-Sharif and the Star and his number inscribed was 2-12. We drank of the moon water ABYSS and purged ourselves of the cider that is man's TEMPTATION! That unhappy fruit that was the gift of the SERPENT and the weakness of woman. I have lit four fires and their names are Solomon, Zepher, Wontog, and Meer. Do you wash yourself in the smoke of the same flame? A was once U but now it is M!!!!!!!! Speak not the WORD for it is FORBIDDEN but enter into the night of NO MOON that is dry of the moon flower's nectar!!!!

    August 15, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  8. allenwoll

    Ryan = Snake ! ! !

    August 15, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • manhandler1

      Simply and well put.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  9. Horus

    Rand was a bitter self-absorbed person, and praised self-interest over humanism. Atlas Shrugged is absurd for several reasons. Even if the "creative minds and business leaders" disappeared, they would lose all their wealth as the economy collapsed. The only thing I think she had right was atheism; but IMO she was not an atheist out of deep reflection, but selfishness.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • fofojan

      bravo.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      exactly

      August 15, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Jim in PA

      I've often laughed at the concept of their little commune. Can you imagine a large group of wealthy executives, isolated from all plumbers, electricians, nurses, mechanics, brick layers, and carpenters? Their "society" would look like Lord of the Flies for 50 year olds.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • gar

      I concur. Bravo.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Horus

      Jim – I share your conclusion. And it illustrates one of the ways in which Rand completely abandons reason for self-interest.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  10. Paul

    Sorry, but reagan and other recent gop presidents have never tried to marry religion with gov, or religion with politics.

    I wont deny that before nixon that there may have been efforts.. but nothing like the merger of socialistic policy with democratic party ideas.. .the Demos are not the demos of jfk and pre-jfk times.

    Todays demos are in truth, real progressives..which is not a good thing...

    August 15, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  11. James D

    Dear me.. Ayn Rand teaches about the individuals pursuit of happiness and prosperity and somehow breaking everything down to the individual is a religion? No no no.. the state is a religion with its songs, flags, pictures of leaders on the walls, modern 'faith' complex is the original religion with its songs, flags, pictures of leaders on the walls. Breaking it down to the personal level, the individual level is the pure opposite of a religion.. It is the opposite of collectivism which is all that religion is in any form. Also Ayn Rand opposed collectivism and promotes individualism to its purest form and this entices Paul Ryan to enter the PUBLIC service. I mean seriously just use you brains for a second. Ayn Rand and objectivists oppose EVERYTHING the world has become.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • gar

      Peculiar, isn't it? Did Ryan enter the public service in order to destroy it?

      August 15, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • AmazedinFL

      Yet her focus and worship of the almighty dollar is very consistent with what everything has become, and the huge focus on money, which she so strongly advocated as the root of all good, is front and center of so many of our problems (on BOTH sides of the aisle).

      August 15, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  12. Timmy

    Here is the link between Christian belief and support of Randian capitalism: human beings are flawed selfish creatures who, all things being equal, will tend towards selfish behavior. Christianity recognizes this, perhaps more than any other religion. That is why God had to intervene in history on our behalf to save us. Capitalism is simply the best economic system for a world full of fallen humans. It exploits selfish behavior to promote economic growth.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • K Kim

      Very astute in your observation but your conclusion is off. All man-made systems (capitalism, communism, socialism, atheism, humanism, etc...) are carnal/wordly and ultimately places someone or something above God.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Robyn

      Very good point.

      August 31, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  13. fofojan

    I'm proud to say that I'm an atheist. The step up from Christianity is atheism and the step down from Judaism is Randism.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Jim in PA

      In your rush to judge and rank other people's faith, you seem oblivious to the fact that you and Rand are fellow aetheists. Just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn't mean you get to re-classify her as otherwise.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • fofojan

      Your mind is too small to understand that there are many form of atheism "Jim in pa".

      August 15, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Jim in PA

      fofojan – LOL. Excellent retort from someone who just lumped together all adherents to major religion. Talk about small minded. The irony is worthy of a Rand novel.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • fofojan

      it's sad to be you jimbo.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  14. 1seashell

    In the last sentence, calling Ryan's budget "Robin Hood" is surely the opposite of what was meant by the author. Rather than stealing from the rich to give to the poor as Robin Hood did, the Ryan budget would appear to be stealing from the poor to give to the rich. So I would call Ryan's an anti-Robin Hood budget.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • fofojan

      he should have called it Mittenhood.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  15. Alan W. Yueh

    It was St. Paul, and not Jesus who said the love of money is the root of *all sorts* of evil, not the root of all evil. There's a big difference in the two statements. Please see Paul's first epistle to Timothy (I Timothy 6:10).

    August 15, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • John Smith

      How shameful that a scholar of religion can't distinguish between the teachings of Paul and Jesus; in the church I grew up in, every child over the age of 12 could have told you that it was Paul who condemned the love of money. Equally shameful that he can't be bothered to conduct basic fact-checking before embarrassing himself on the front page of CNN.com.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  16. Bill55

    Lots of people have opinions. Why is this persons opinion any more important than others?
    Isn't Rand the person that hated government assistance but applied for a government pension?
    Hypocrite as usual.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Ayn Rand began collecting Social Security in 1974. She had paid the mandatory contributions to that fund since 1937. It was no "government pension".

      August 15, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  17. Jim in PA

    What always amazed me about Rand's writing wasn't her extreme selfishness. It was her lazy intellectual constructs. Take Atlas Shrugged, for example. Here is a book that supposedly makes an argument for self-made individuals. Yet the protagonist (Dagny Taggart) is an heiress to a railroad company. In other words, she was lucky enough to be born to the right daddy. Now compound that with the irony that no industry in US history has benefitted more from government largess than railroads. You simply can't build a railroad without the government stepping in and giving you the otherwise illegal power to seize the land necessary to draw a 1,000-mile long straight line. For those who pay attention, the story is an argument against itself.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Bill55

      As I said above, hypocrite.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Robyn

      Actually, Dagny wasn't given any position in her father's company. Maybe you read the book a little too long ago, but it describes in detail her first position working nights at a country station, and due to being really freaking good at the work, ends up as VP.

      September 3, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  18. Sid Airfoil

    Rand and Christianity are incompatible. But it's not primarily because of their different ethics, but because of their different epistemologies. (Aside: Jesus said sacrifice yourself for the sake of others, Nietzsche said sacrifice others for the sake of yourself. In contrast to both Rand said sacrifice NO ONE for the sake of ANYONE). Epistemologically, Objectivism is based on REASON, while Christianity and other religions are based on FAITH. Since faith and reason or incompatible, so are Objectivism and Christianity.

    Sid

    August 15, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      You should expand on this: "faith and reason [are] incompatible". It's not apparent to everyone.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • counterww

      Asinine assertion that faith and reason are incompatible. Because YOU say so?

      The author on this one got it wrong in many ways, but he is right that selfishness is wrong. The question is, can government alleviate this through edicts? I think not.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Sid Airfoil

      counterww:

      Let's define our terms. Reason is the faculty of the human mind that interprets the evidence of the senses. Faith is belief without evidence. Therefore, they are incompatible. When one has faith there is no need for evidence, and when one has evidence there is no need for faith. I realize, of course, that people of faith consider themselves to be reasonable. But this is only their attempt to have their cake and eat it too. Most everyone WANTS to be reasonable (indeed, you have to be to live), but they also, for social, historic and psychological reasons, WANT to have faith. And so people of faith employ a split epistemology in which they apply whichever approach, faith or reason, that allows them to come to the conclusion that they want. This approach has a clear psychological appeal since it never requires one to believe anything that they don't want to. If there is evidence for one's beliefs, put those beliefs in to the "reason" category and pat yourself on the back for being a reasonable person. If there is NO evidence for one's beliefs, put them into the "faith" category and believe them anyway. It's no wonder religion/faith is almost universal. One never has to be WRONG!

      Sid

      August 15, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • emintey

      There is no empirical evidence that the precepts of Randism and Libertarianism are true, yet their followrs have a religious (unquestiinioning) faith. Randism is w/o question a religion, and a cultlike one.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Sid Airfoil

      Eminty:

      Just because SOME people follow a belief without understanding it doesn't prove that the belief is false. It only proves that some people choose not to think. By the way, there is tons of evidence that Rand's epistemology (reason), ethics (rational self-interest) and politics (capitalism) are correct. Indeed, the rise of Western civilization began with the Renaissance (a renewed emphasis on the individual), continued with the Enlightenment (a focus on reason), and culminated with the unprecedented increase in wealth, prosperity and freedom (capitalism) that we still enjoy today.

      The evidence is there if you're willing to see it.

      Sid

      August 15, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • counterww

      Sorry Aid , your philosophy is one of materialism- all you can fathom is what your senses and material brain can see, touch smell, prove. YOU determine what is reasonable and rational and everything else is thrown out. Mature individuals REALIZE that all fact is truth, but not all truth can be proven as fact. Love, faith, hope, all these things are not "provable" and are good things, if they prove to the person that they can rely on their love for, faith in, and hope etc.

      Sorry, never bought this nonsense of the typical atheist that thinks faith in God and reasoning are incompatible. Contrary to that , they are VERY compatible. I do notice that the so called "smartest" people won't look at all this complexity and think, oh, it is all designed, that makes the most sense.

      It's a nice assertion you make but it is plainly wrong.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  19. Peikoffi

    Tom Paine (atheist), Ben Franklin (agnostic), Washington and Jefferson (deists) and John Adams (Christian) where in agreement that the government of the United States was secular, and these men of the Enlightenment included freedom of religion as a reasonable and neccessary right of all citizens. Jefferson favored no denomination, and didn't care if his neighbor believed in none of them. They were better Americans than most CNN commentators.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Jim in PA

      What is sad is that so many Americans can't seem to understand that a secular government doesn't have to have any impact on how they do or don't practice their religiom. It simply means that the government won't interfere. You are 100% correct that the last thing our Founders had in mind was a theocracy of any type.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • counterww

      Washington said the following, which is contrary to what you guys spout.
      Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

      It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

      August 15, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  20. L STARINA

    Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are books i have read over and over again. Oprah's book club phase made me think of Ellsworth Toohey and his control over the masses. Every time I read Atlas Shrugged, I root for Dagny to stay with Galt. And, every time I root for Eddie Willers to survive.
    I always thought alot of Rand's philosophy cames from her family's experiences in Russia. I also have always thought that if a book challenged your beliefs and made you think, that was positive.
    I am a very liberal democrat, but love a good story.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Will S

      You should try Lord of the Rings, at least it is based in reality.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.